The Skanda Purana (Kedar Khanda) version of the Bali story did the rounds in our area in the central Himalayas. Each year, we heard of the famed Bali Raja from the family priest, a tall, lean and stern figure of authority. Every year on Raksha Bandhan, he would arrive with a ball of cotton yarn dyed in turmeric and proceed to tie it around the wrists of everyone in the family, the right hand for men and boys, the left hand for women and girls.
“Yen Baddho Bali Raja Danveero ca Mahabalee, Tenaham tvam bdhnami, rakshasu janmani janmani.” (I tie here the same thread that was tied to that most powerful and generous king, Bali Raja, may it also guard you birth after birth.)
Who was this Bali Raja, the Asura king of kings, who allowed Vishnu, the powerful Sura rival dressed clumsily as a dwarf, to place his foot upon his head and, as a result, was pushed down into the nether world, losing his vast kingdom in the process?
Was it a north-south divide? Or a tribal versus non-tribal tableau? Or a clash of civilisations?
Good questions all. If only some present day eager-to-win- brownie-points-with-the-northern-electorate leaders had done their homework, a lot of trouble in Twitterland and in Bharat that is India today would have been forestalled.
Here are the bare bones of the myth as it materialises out of (largely Vaishnavite) texts. Make what you will of it.
How Vamana defeated Mahabali
The ancient sage Kashyap had two wives, Diti and Aditi. The Asuras were born of the first and the Suras of the other. They were, thus, initially related and, like many relatives we know, had many clashes and guarded secrets. Their gurus (Brihaspati for the Suras and Shukracharya for the Asuras) remained great friends and frequently poured oil over troubled waters.
Thus the myths where Shaivite Asuras turn Vaishnavites and vice-versa.
After I learnt to read, among the calendar art illustrations nestling in the pages of a Hindi magazine, Kalyan, I found a picture of the great Bali Raja, a large, dark man with a bushy, royal moustache, resplendent in gold and gems and a gold crown. He stood with hands folded in veneration before a dwarfish figure.
The object of his veneration, I read on the facing page, a young ascetic in a dhoti carrying a hollowed gourd, or Kamandalu, was actually Lord Vishnu, cleverly disguised as a dwarf (Vamana) Brahmin to try and curb the powers of Maharaja Bali, which were threatening his Sura brothers. Vishnu, as a dwarfish Vamana, first praised and then humbly requested the Great Giver the grant of a piece of land big enough for him to cover in just three strides. Wish granted, he immediately increased his form, it was reported, till he had measured the sky and the Earth in two paces. “Where shall I put the third foot?” he asked Mahabali. In the manner of our hassled mothers irritated by our whinging, "where shall I put this?", Bali seems to have muttered, “Upon my head!”
This done, the good king was gently pushed into the nether world never to be seen again. Mahabali was, however, granted a compensating boon that allowed him to visit his erstwhile kingdom the day after Diwali on Bali Pratipada. Varanasi still celebrates his one-day rule after each Diwali. Down South, he emerges again for a day to joyous celebrations on Onam.
Throughout India, Vishnu has left his footprints. But the ongoing competition between the Suras and Asuras is never fully resolved. The Raksha Sutra the priest tied on our wrists, Onam festivities and Bali Pratipada keep reminding us of the Danveer and Mahabali Asura, pushed out of sight by trickery or force, but not out of minds, no never quite out of the minds of men and women he protected and helped prosper.
Love conquers all
Bali’s son Ban (or Banasur), too, was to become a great and powerful king in Assam. He was initially said to be a worshipper of Shiva. Vaishnava lore in Bengal and Bihar has it that after his daughter, Usha, eloped with Krishna’s grandson, Aniruddha, he asked Shiva for help. Kartikeya, the son of Shiva, arrived with his army of fierce demons and waged a bloody battle against Krishna’s forces, led by who else but Cupid (Kamdeva, the god of love). The celibate Kartikeya, according to Vaishnava lore, lost out to the flower-tipped arrows Kama directed towards his poisonous darts. (According to grandmothers’ remedies, mango blossom juice still remains the best remedy for a poisonous bite.)
Thus, love defeated hatred and blossoms won ultimately over poison. Amor Vincit Omnia , or love conquers all, as the old saying goes.
Corrections and clarifications: "Amor Vincit Omnia" had erroneously been attributed to the wife of Bath instead of the Prioress in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales in an earlier version of this article.